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Jerusalem Center for Public Affairs
Strategic Alliances for a Secure, Connected, and Prosperous Region

When Perceptions Ignore History

Filed under: Operation Swords of Iron

When Perceptions Ignore History
The charred remains of the Doctors Without Borders trauma hospital after it was hit by a U.S. airstrike in Kunduz, Afghanistan, on October 3, 2015. Forty-two civilians were killed and 30 injured. (Associated Press/Najim Rahim)
  • The tragic unintentional killing of seven aid workers from the World Central Kitchen (WCK) has created a swell of international outrage, including a statement by President Biden in which he claimed that Israel had not done enough to protect aid workers.
  • Other governments have now demanded a ceasefire, which would effectively end Israel’s goal of dismantling Hamas.
  • While awful, tragedies of this sort are commonplace in war. An academic study conducted in 2018 found that hundreds of medical facilities were attacked in a variety of conflicts over the last three decades.
  • These attacks resulted in considerable civilian deaths. The United States has been involved in both Afghanistan and Iraq in bombings that have resulted in civilian casualties. One such incident was in August 2021, during President Biden’s watch, when an American drone strike killed ten civilians, including seven children in Kabul.
  • Unlike the IDF in the WCK incident, the United States military initially defended the strike. The behavior of governments in the wake of the WCK tragedy, including governments with good relations with Israel, shows inconsistent policies that stem more from political expediency that includes domestic concerns. These behaviors effectively turn tragedies into opportunities for terrorist organizations like Hamas to exploit civilian death to thwart Israel’s objectives.
  • The WCK aftermath is another example of psychological warfare that, accompanied by unfortunate and inaccurate public pronouncements, transforms some world leaders into inadvertent Hamas pawns.

Psychological warfare involves creating perceptions that support attaining war goals. While some strategies are planned, some behavior is opportunistic, taking advantage of real-time events in the field.

One example is the tragic Israeli strike on a vehicle that killed seven aid workers from the humanitarian organization World Central Kitchen (WCK) in Gaza on April 1, 2024.1

Despite a quick Israeli investigation and acceptance of responsibility for the unintentional strike, governments and world leaders were quick to condemn and demand a ceasefire.2 President Joe Biden stated that Israel “has not done enough” to protect aid workers.3

Past Incidents of Civilian and Humanitarian Worker Casualties

The history of warfare shows incidents where civilians, aid volunteers, and medical workers were killed or wounded. Indeed, these occurrences are commonplace. A study conducted by several academics in 2018 showed that hundreds of medical facilities were targeted in various conflicts worldwide.4 This includes strikes carried out by American forces, which resulted in civilian casualties.

American mistakes in war are not uncommon and include attacks against civilian targets in Afghanistan that killed 42 people5 in a Kunduz trauma hospital6 and a strike against a Baghdad maternity hospital that killed or wounded 25.7 A drone attack in Kabul a few years ago, while Joe Biden was President, resulted in ten deaths, including those of seven children and an aid worker employed by a California organization.8

In that attack, the U.S. military initially defended the strike,9 unlike the IDF in the WCK incident, where the incident was quickly investigated and responsibility publicly acknowledged.

Despite the history of unintentional civilian casualties as a “fact of war,” with even the United Nations noting that 90 percent of wartime casualties are civilians,10 the rush to judgment against Israel continues. In a war where military goals can be attained only if there is a steady and cautious offensive designed to minimize civilian casualties, Hamas and Palestinian propaganda will exploit every opportunity that comes its way to blunt that offensive. By publicly criticizing Israel and increasing pressure for a halt to fighting, specific governments may be complicit in Hamas’ strategy.

Perception Turns to Inaccurate Reality

As has been said previously, in a war where psychological factors play an essential role, perception often becomes a reality.11 The false and contrived perception of Israeli intentionality in the WCK tragedy may, unfortunately, be misperceived and create obstacles to defeating Hamas and restoring stability and security to the region.

Since it is quite apparent to governments who benefit from fresh intelligence and who understand battlefield reality that Israel’s behavior is within the limits of “just war” guidelines,12 any public deviation from that reality could only be ascribed to other interests. For some, those interests may be domestic needs, including political needs.13 To the degree that political expediency clouds moral judgment, any resultant policy adjustment represents a psychological victory for Hamas and other terror-based organizations.

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